Almost 50% of Americans self-identify as workaholics. This isn’t a terrible thing by itself. The drive to work hard and succeed is integral to success, especially as an entrepreneur. However, it’s essential to understand the difference between wanting to work hard and doing all you can to succeed or being addicted to your work. Everyone needs a little time to relax now and then, whether that means being a couch potato for a while, playing some games, scrolling through social media, or even practicing your dance moves (we don’t judge).
It’s one thing to realize this, but it’s another thing entirely to identify the problem in the first place, especially when American work culture emphasizes always hustling to get paid. It’s best to start at the beginning.
Before anything else, we should stress that work addiction is real. Like other types of addiction, you can categorize work addiction by the compulsive need to work incessantly. This goes beyond your standard workaholic and can damage someone’s happiness, relationships, health, and ability to function in society.
The reality of work addiction doesn’t mean that everyone who works hard has a problem. Many people go to their jobs and work hard for many reasons, whether monetary (i.e., raises and promotions) or personal (i.e., a sense of satisfaction from a job well done). These people are participating in a “work engagement” habit rather than a work addiction.
Work engagement means working hard because you find work personally satisfying or rewarding. It’s a question of motivation. Researchers, such as Malissa Clark in FastCompany, note that “engaged workers are driven to work because they genuinely enjoy it, while workaholics are driven to work because they feel an inner compulsion to do so.”
It’s a bit of a fine line, we admit. Like many addictions, identifying work addiction requires an honest look at your motivations and habits.
There is no single reason someone falls into work addiction. Like any addiction, the reasons for it happening vary depending on the individual. However, there are some common threads we can follow when looking at past cases.
The most basic cause of work addiction is common among addictions of all kinds: the fulfillment of a psychological need. Work becomes an escape similar to drugs or other substances. Immersing oneself in work tasks becomes a way for someone to avoid dealing with challenging feelings and situations. This can be literal, as in a worker working outside of regular work hours to escape a physical problem, or figurative, as in a worker focusing on their job duties instead of personal thoughts.
Another common cause of work addiction is overcompensation. When someone experiences feelings of incompetence in other areas of their life, they may turn to work as a way to feel competent and validated.
Still, others suffer from work addiction due to different mental health conditions. In particular, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder can lead to work addiction.
If you suspect you or someone you know might be suffering from work addiction, there are a few symptoms you should keep an eye out for.
Some are typical and what you’d expect, such as:
Obsessing over success at work
Putting work obligations above personal interests or responsibilities
Working long hours
Letting personal relationships deteriorate in favor of work
Forsaking health due to work
This is not an exhaustive list, and there is no checklist you can complete to diagnose someone with work addiction immediately. Conditions like this one are rarely simple. The best thing to do is keep a sharp eye out and see if multiple symptoms show up consistently.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions have shifted to working remotely, typically from home. This has been a positive development for most people, with 77% of employees wishing to continue working from home and productivity-increasing for 65%. Unfortunately, the combination of work and home life can make it easier for someone predisposed to work addiction to fall into bad habits.
The most considerable risk is the potential isolation that could come with a work-from-home environment. Having partners or family at home while working can be stressful, but they offer at least some relief from work in their own way. If you are alone, it's easy to forgo a typical routine in favor of focusing on work. With work accessible 24/7, it's easier than ever to sink into professional responsibilities and fall prey to the previously mentioned symptoms of work addiction.
Remote work can also throw a worker’s mental health for a loop, which can affect the development of work addiction. The most common detriment, in this case, is burnout, with a recent survey showing that 73% of workers are suffering from it. Unfortunately, burnout can spiral into work addiction as it becomes a struggle to prove yourself valuable to your employer or work through those feelings.
The reality is that remote work is now a normal part of the professional world, so how can you keep yourself from sliding into work addiction despite the unique challenges working from home comes with?
It’s all about taking care of yourself.
A significant step to heading off or minimizing work addiction during remote work is achieving a good work-life balance. As the name implies, work-life balance is the ability to manage your workload so that it doesn’t become the sole focus of your life. Critically, this includes time spent thinking about work, as mental energy is just as vital as physical energy.
Finding this kind of balance is not simple and will take work. Like every important thing in life, it's a process you work on continuously. However, there are habits you can work on that will help your work-from-home life be conducive to your well-being, and that will help keep work addiction at bay.
Let’s start simple. Work addiction can be highly stressful, and so can having little to no work-life balance. When dealing with that kind of stress, you need rest. Honestly, we don’t usually get the type of sleep we need as is, so this is something everyone should do. Sleep is the one sure-fire time of the day where you can completely detach from work, so you should take advantage of it.
Finding it hard to keep work off your mind while lying in bed? Flip the switch on your brain and distract yourself with other thoughts. Try putting on some white noise, or use one of the many “sleep music” videos available on YouTube. You might even be able to use a favorite show to take your mind elsewhere. The important thing is to make time to rest and refresh away from work.
It’s hard to say no to work. There are internal and external pressures to always be on call and make time for every single project that comes your way. There’s a difference between being available to be a team player and overloading your plate. You have to be okay with speaking up when you have too much in your hands.
You don’t have to outright say no if it makes you uncomfortable. If you need time to consider the other projects you are working on, you can instead ask for some time to look things over before responding. If you’re part of a team and can do so, you can also take advantage of delegation and hand over projects to other team members.
Ask yourself these questions before taking on additional projects:
Are you already working on multiple projects?
Are you mentally and physically ready to take on another project?
Do you have time to give the project the attention it deserves?
If you honestly can’t answer these questions affirmatively, you might need to say no.
Creating a to-do list is a simple way to focus on the most critical projects on your plate. However, you need to go further when working to create a work-life balance while doing remote work and trying to stave off work addiction.
Take that list and narrow it down further. Choose one priority task to focus on every day. That’s right, just one. Whether that means focusing on the highest priority task or the easiest one to get done first is up to you. The important thing is to focus on one job so that you will be less likely to be distracted or overwhelmed.
Remember: work smarter, not harder.
Without rest, your mind and body aren’t cut out to move from task to task. It can be easy to switch your brain off and work through the day nonstop, but it's not healthy or conducive to a work-life balance.
That’s why we suggest reflecting and regrouping throughout the day. Go for a quick walk, take 10-15 minutes to destress, or do something as simple as taking an hour for lunch, completely disconnected from your work.
Giving yourself these spaces between outputs allows your body and mind to recharge. It reduces the risk of work addiction while enabling you to return to work refreshed and ready to take things on.
The last thing you want to do is check emails from bed. It’s a lousy way to wake up and unnecessarily conflates your personal and professional spaces. Instead, keep your work activities relegated to a dedicated office space in your home.
You don’t have to go out of your way to take over an entire room in your house either. Sometimes, just having a corner of your living room or family room where your work computer or other materials live is enough. Some people use areas of their bedroom, but that comes with its own risks.
Setting up an office space in your bedroom can make your mind associate the room with work, priming you to be in that headspace. The last thing you want when trying to go to bed is work lurking around the corner.
When you have a dedicated office space, remember to leave it alone when not working. Battling work addiction means separating from work when appropriate—split weekdays and weekends by staying away from your workspace during the latter.
A great perk of working from home regarding work-life balance is the end of the daily commute. You’re no longer bound by set times to wake up and be out the door due to traffic.
This freedom can be a little overwhelming sometimes, and you might be tempted to overcompensate by doing more and more work, a sign of work addiction. Instead, make technology work for you to make your day more productive and manageable.
For example, use your job’s calendar function to block time for working on specific projects or turn your phone into a timer to help you track how much time you give to particular activities.
Don’t overlook the many tools available for collaborative work, either. We’ve taken a close look at some of the best digital collaboration tools before, and they can be crucial to ensuring you’re as productive as possible without drowning in work.
Just because you are working from home doesn’t mean you need to be stuck inside at all hours of the day. It can be tough to pull away from your job when it’s at home, but that makes it more critical than ever to have activities ready at the end of the day to look forward to.
You don’t even have to make a big deal out of them or go beyond your typical day. Set a specific time for going to the gym after work, bringing your kids home from school, or even just starting dinner. The important thing is to make plans to have a solid reason for “leaving” work.
This can also be a great way to pair positive feelings with being outside of work in your head. Plan something fun that you want to do after work, and it will motivate you to get through the day and turn off your work computer completely.
Work addiction is a complex problem like any other addiction. There’s no magic potion that will solve it immediately. If you’re concerned that a work-from-home environment is leading you down the path of work addiction, taking steps like the above to achieve work-life balance can be critical first steps toward caring for your mental health.
If you or someone you know is suffering from work addiction and life feels too chaotic to take the steps outlined above, talk to a mental healthcare provider.
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